Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge) isn't known for restraint. His cinematic spectacles are audacious attention grabs, shamelessly theatrical, toeing the line (and sometimes crossing over it) between melodrama and camp. Baz likes his emotions big and his sets loud, with crazy colors exploding from every seam. Unlike his earlier films, which had clear-eyed intentions, Luhrmann's attempt at an Outback Gone With the Wind or Casablanca can't decide whether it's a rousing romantic Western or a brazenly manipulative World War II love story, so it inelegantly jams the two together.
Actually, "rousing" is a good adjective for what Australia imagines itself to be, one that'll be bandied about in dozens of reviews — along with "sweeping," "epic" and, in some corners, "self-indulgent." Luhrmann's film is all that in good measure. But, unfortunately, where the first half brilliantly succeeds with stunning visuals, entertaining twists on Western genre conventions and focused conflict, the second half clumsily stumbles through a formulaic war-torn melodrama where lovers are separated, children are in danger and enemies attack with illogical rage. Each is half-heartedly developed and less stirring then the next. Oh, and there's a socially conscious subplot involving Australia's "Stolen Generation" and its policy of taking aboriginal children from their parents in order to "civilize" them.
At any rate, Nicole Kidman is Lady Sarah Ashley, an uptight Englishwoman in Australia to search for her uncommunicative husband, convinced that he succumbed to the siren song of loose aboriginal women. Instead, she discovers that he has been killed and his ranch is in danger of falling into the hands of an unscrupulous cattle baron (Brian Brown) and his unsavory lackeys. Desperate to keep her husband's land, Ashley teams up with the local Drover (Hugh Jackman) and a mystical half-aboriginal boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters) to lead a cattle drive across the desert to Darwin, where the livestock will be sold to feed American sailors. Inevitably, Jackman and Kidman fall in love and Nullah becomes their surrogate kid. Everything's hunky-dory until old enemies come looking for revenge and the Japanese bomb Darwin.
At almost three hours, Luhrmann's sprawling tale is beautifully shot, taking full advantage of Australia's majestic vistas and the charisma of its lead actors. It's also too damn long, going half an hour beyond the story's requirements. Baz should know that an "epic" film doesn't necessarily require an epic running time.
At first, Australia feels artificial and stagey, with Luhrmann and his cast struggling to compete against the Outback's stunning vistas. It's clear that the director is at home in the contained worlds of Hollywood soundstages, where he can control every facet of the production design. Out in the great wide open, the director is a bit lost. Eventually his feverish Western tropes take hold and you're drawn into the retro give-and-take of its stock characters. The romance and rivalries are meaty and, though it comes too early, a magnificent cattle stampede makes you long for days when epic Westerns were fixtures on Hollywood schedules. After the thrilling cattle drive, however, Luhrmann redirects the plot toward a more conventional wartime romance, an unnatural shift that undermines the film's momentum and breaks the hard-won spell of its first half. As the filmmaking becomes tighter and more in sync with Luhrmann's strengths, his storyline yields fewer surprises. Emotions run high as the hysteria of lovers struggling to find each other (and rescue cute-as-hell Nullah) reaches a suitably frantic tone, but none of it feels natural or well-developed.
Nevertheless, Luhrmann's grand scale drama has enough charm, vision and style going for it that it earns a qualified "Good on ya, mate."
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.